Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On the Death of My Distant Father

I received word last week that my natural father died. I had not seen him in 30 years, and had not spoken with him in 9 years. I did my best to try to keep in contact, but it is a long-standing mystery in my life why he has not wanted to keep in touch with my brother and me.

I had always hoped for the chance to see him again, or at least talk with him again. I had always hoped to solve this mystery and come to understand. Now I am adjusting to the realization that it is very likely that I will never know.

To have a parent not take an interest in your life is hard to live with. All my life I’ve been trying to do something spectacular to justify my existence and prove my worthiness for love. “Maybe if I did something really great and wonderful and became famous, my father would finally notice me and be happy to be related to me,” was a primary motivating force throughout my life, though I did not consciously realize this for a long time. By the time I did realize it, I was able to deconstruct all of the premises supporting this belief, but, in a way, it was too late. The pattern had become too deeply ingrained in my entire being. My whole being had been indelibly shaped by a constant desire to prove myself worthy of existence and love.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, my cousin redoubled his efforts to get him to be in touch with us, but to no avail. My father even forbade my cousin to let us know that he was ill. Thankfully, my cousin did break the rules to let us know that he had died – if he had not, I was perilously close to finding out through the internet. I periodically did internet searches to see what my dad was up to. He was, as they say, “highly respected in his field,” and so has a pretty impressive web presence. But the online obituaries now appearing do not mention my brother and me at all among the list of survivors.

It’s hard to know how to handle a death like this, when the “official” survivors don’t want us involved, for reasons we do not understand. I revert back to the child I was when I did last know him, and with childlike simplicity absolutely cannot fathom why other people are blocking two young kids from coming into that sacred space of honoring and saying goodbye to their dead father. Never mind that we are complicated grown-up adults now – still, we are solid good people, well-respected in our own fields. No one should have any reason not to want to see who we have become.

From afar, we try to peer over a fence too high for us to see over. Through small cracks in the fence (the internet), we catch glimpses of love and laughter and appreciation that seems otherworldly to us, perpetually out of reach. Is it real? Was he real?

Did he not care, or did he care so much he couldn’t handle it?

How would all of our lives be different if only … ?

But of course such questions can drive a person crazy. It is too late now.

I’ll go on trying to prove myself worthy of love, because it is the only way I know how to live. It doesn’t matter that it’s hopeless, because I already did figure that out: human love anyway is always inadequate. Strangely, this thought has come to comfort me. It sounds bleak, but it has helped me to become more forgiving and more accepting. Over the years, I have come to see how I’ve always been surrounded by love. So what if it has seldom or never been perfect? Why should I expect it to be? Do I love in a perfect way? No! I wish I did, but I know that I fall short because of my own limitations. So I can understand why others fall short too. No one is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent—except God. There is a perfect love that is there for us, but never will any one human being manifest it all perfectly.

So, even though there is a lot I do not understand about my father and my own distant past, I actually do believe that he loved me. Much of that love never reached me, and much of my own love for him was blocked from reaching him too. This is tragic.

But the love that was there was and is still real.


  1. This touched my heart, and is very sad. I am holding your brother and you in the Light--as well as those who stood in the way of connections and reconciliation for certainly their hearts need to be softened.

    Thank goodness your cousin was able to do the right thing and let you know your father was dying.


  2. Thanks, Cath! I really appreciate your kind words.

  3. Hello, this makes me think of my father who is still alive and although I know he does love me he is emotionally unavailable 99% of the time and I feel distant from him, which affects how I feel distant from God at times. However, my brother I would like to take issue with what you said about it being engrained in you (the search for love) and being indelibly shaped. By no means! Brother, you grew up with a story that you have lived with for most of your life but you are not an old dog - you can learn new tricks! And one is to get rid of that belief that you can do nothing but prove yourself worthy for the rest of your life. If you can learn to become more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and leave old sinful habits behind, how do you know that you cannot leave the habit of this thinking pattern behind. You can if you think you can. There are even books like Imitating Christ through guided changework that will help you make the cognitive adjustments, and I use these tools with Christians to help them resolve issues of unworthiness. Secondly, I have started to make two different mental constructs for 'father' and distinguish between God, and my own dad. It helps. I write this because I passionately believe you do not need to stay 'stuck' in an old story but can give yourself a new one - it might not be easy but it is possible.

    Doug, London, dcbrain@email.com

  4. Thank you, Doug. I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts and encouragement. I believe that you are right -- the kind of transformation you describe is possible. And I feel I am making progress. It is slow, but real progress. Thanks again.

  5. You helped me...thank you. i'm 50 this year. & sharing your pain... has helped me so much. i felt like is was uniquely ignored by my father. I'm not so alone now...you have helped me to see...heck...there's a whole bunch of us....ignored kids out there. thank you..
    i think i feel normal now...heck...i don't feel so deprived of my fathers love...knowing that..nobody gets it !! Hey...thanks for the coffee and wake up.

  6. thanks for sharing this... I was looking for something to help me cope with my so long distant father who is now agonizing.. And now i feel that i'm not a freak whose dad never really cared for my brother and i... just today i went to visit him with my husband, it was the first time seeing him in over 15 years, i'm now 32, and he's in a terminal stage... it was sad to see him like that, never before i've seen something like this. but people usually don't understand situations like this because most families are, or seem to be, normal...not mine. Thanks God i found a loving husband who's also a wonderful father, and also my in laws that have become my own family. i hope that i can overcome this, as you seem to have.

  7. a similar situation has just happened to me and my sister. But we were fortunate enough to be informed of his cancer about one month before he died. We attempted to visit his home and were denied access by his wife and stepson, as he laid in a hospital bed inside. His wife has dementia and was not fit to be caring for him let alone herself. Nurses came and her family came to care for her demands, as my father suffered like a second class citizen in his own home. However, he was admitted to hospital and my sister and I called ahead to ensure noone was visiting and we hung out with him for 3 evenings before his death last night. I feel that after 25 years of having no contact those 3 nights of sharing our news and reminiscing family affairs we captured our moments and that is something we will never forget and noone can take away. Seeing our Dad was the most beautiful that has happened to me(right up there with getting married and haveing kids). I am so thankful for the people that reached out and did the right thing by informing us of his situation(cancer).

  8. Thanks, all, for sharing your stories! Very moving!

    A new development in my own: someone has discovered a treasure trove of my father's work and is trying to organize it and create a book and/or movie/documentary about my father's life.

    Among that work is evidence that he did sometimes think about me, and wondered about what my life is like.


    1. My biological father left me when I was 12. He is slightly impaired mentally. He never took interest in my life. He is now dying and my mother is giving me crap about not going to see him. I have no feelings towards him, he's like any other person lying in the hospital dying. How do I handle this as I really don't know him.

    2. Sorry not to see your posting until now. Yes, that is a hard situation too! Some time has passed since you posted. I hope by now you have found closure one way or another that works for you. Take care!

  9. I just read your post and I wanted to say Thank You. I just found out last night that my father passed away in February. The last time I talked to him was 19 years ago when my sister died. I called to let him know. He thanked me and those were the last words I ever heard from him. He was never around when I was growing up. He left before I was even a year old, but I found out later that he loved my sister. He kept in touch with her over the years (I never knew that until after she passed. I guess she kept that from me because she felt it would have hurt me.) And now I'm sad. I'm sad that I never knew who he was and never will. I don't know why he never cared for me, but I do know that I strongly relate to your comment about trying to prove that I'm worthy of love. I hope one day I believe it.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Denise. Very sad. It is hard to accept that there are some questions we may never have answered. But I do believe it is possible to come to believe that you are worthy of love! Every person is worthy of love. It has taken me many years, but very gradually I have found myself getting closer to believing this not just abstractly, but feeling its truth for myself.